PM hits at 'shallow, error-prone' media

By Claire Trevett

Prime Minister Helen Clark has given a biting appraisal of the media, saying it often lacked depth and taking a swipe at the Herald for its coverage of the Electoral Finance Bill.

Speaking to the Journalism Education Association conference in Wellington, the Prime Minister said fairness and balance were key responsibilities.

With clear reference to the Herald's campaign against the Electoral Finance Bill, she said "fairness and balance is in the eyes of the beholder".

"In my experience, after many years in politics it doesn't pay to be too thin-skinned about this. Actually, we put up with quite a lot, especially when a newspaper is in full campaign mode, like the Herald is at the moment, and it can run for weeks, if not months, with full-blooded attack, front-page headline, opinion editorials, editorials, attack stories, cartoons, you name it."

She said there was little point complaining to the print media's self-regulatory watchdog, the Press Council.

"That just doesn't get you anywhere. So you try to shrug and say, 'Well, that's life,' and get on with it."

She also discussed her own relationship with the media, saying her style was to "be open, but not to the point of familiarity breeding contempt".

"In the small political bubble that is Wellington, and particularly Parliament, people are far too close to each other, might establish habits of drinking far too much with each other, and getting too close.

" I don't think that's a good idea, and I make a habit of keeping professional boundaries myself." She encouraged the journalism lecturers to give their students "a thirst for knowledge and context", especially for historical events.

Helen Clark said "very few" journalists had a comprehensive knowledge of New Zealand's international relations and few media outlets sent journalists to cover her international trips.

"It's a matter of regret that proprietors don't seem to think these things are particularly important either, so they don't encourage the depth of coverage."

Many journalists were young, and while this meant that they had "energy and a fresh perspective", most of them had major gaps in their general knowledge.

Helen Clark said media also needed to consider blogging by senior political reporters on the websites of major news outlets.

"Of course, if you commit yourself to instant opinion, then when it comes time to putting in a considered piece, you might think, 'Whoops, that was a rush of judgment,' but it becomes hard to climb back from."

She did not confine her criticism to New Zealand media, saying that while the "heroism" of war correspondents was admirable, the "new phenomenon of embedded correspondents" raised ethical issues.

She had noticed the BBC's usual objectivity had "slipped" during the invasion of Iraq. "You would sometimes find people talking about 'our troops'. Well, that cannot be."

She said the competitive media scene meant journalists were constantly striving to break news, often leading to mistakes.

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